Few conductors manage to cross the invisible boundary separating contemporary music ensembles (with their emphasis on ephemeral premieres) from mainstream orchestras (where even the 867th rendition of a Brahms symphony is expected to sound gripping and fresh). The American David Robertson is one such conductor. In 1992, Pierre Boulez appointed Robertson music director of the Paris-based Ensemble intercontemporain, with its fearsome reputation for tackling complex music—Robertson convinced them to expand their repertoire to include composers such as John Adams.

Since then, Robertson has been music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, the St. Louis Symphony, and chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; he was also principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He doesn’t hold a music directorship right now, but teaches conducting at Juilliard and makes frequent guest appearances. He’s also gotten back into composing after a decades-long break. As he walked through Central Park, he spoke with me by phone about rediscovering his composing chops, advocating for music independent of style, and why the conductor shouldn’t have all the answers.

VAN: You recently composed a new work, a piano concerto called “Light forming…” that was premiered by the Orlando Philharmonic…

David Robertson: Yes. When I took over the Ensemble intercontemporain, I had been composing avidly, which I had done since I was a teenager. I studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I kept that up the whole time. 

When I was proposed for the intercontemporain [position], it coincided within half a year of the birth of my first son, and then in another half a year with the birth of my second son. There was all this repertoire that was new to me that I had to bring up to speed very quickly—for example, my first performance of [Boulez’s] “Le marteau sans maître” was the 293rd performance that the ensemble had done. It’s not like you can walk in and say, “Gee, how does this piece go?” So I said, “OK, composition is going on the back burner.” 

My wife, Orli Shaham, is a marvelous pianist. Although she is by no means a specialist in contemporary music, it’s been fascinating to work with her on a new piece. Her performance of it is extraordinarily musical. I say this with great respect: People who tend to be specialists in contemporary music—there are questions they won’t ask about the music. That will often lead to a type of interpretation which feels like, What you see is what you hear, and not the deeper things that we always expect from a work by Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms, and which should be in Boulez. 

Is “Light forming…” the first original piece you’ve written since you started at Ensemble intercontemporain in 1992?

There have been some little things, but it’s the first major piece that I’ve written since the ’90s. My composition chops were extremely rusty and needed buckets of WD-40 put on them. What was interesting is how once you get started, you actually get in the zone; all of a sudden wonderful things start occurring to you. It was a tremendous joy to get back to playing around with notes.

Having premiered so much new music in the meantime, is there a block there? Like, “If I write this, my piece will sound like composer X, or if I write that it’ll sound like composer Y”?

When I got to the Ensemble, there were so many conflicting aesthetics. I came across a wonderful article about Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, who of course were both artists in their own right, but also married. As anyone who is in a creative endeavor realizes, it is precisely at the moment when a work is not yet finished—when it’s still in gestation or you’re trying to push it to some final form—that the artist themselves feels the most… I wouldn’t say fragile, but the touchiest.

How do you handle that? [Pollock and Krasner] would invite the other over to look at what was being created and the highest compliment that each could give the other was, It works. What I expected was that in each work of art of any type, there are going to be propositions put forward by the nature of the creative endeavor. And, for the work to be successful, they need to be followed through and realized in the course of the work.

That allowed me—as a programmer who had to make all sorts of artistic decisions in a relatively fraught environment in the early ’90s in France, with a lot of competition for resources in the new music community—to be able to look and say, “OK, this piece is all in C major, but it does it really well. [Or] this piece is ultra-complex, but it’s a brilliant realization of that kind of aesthetic.” The whole ability to judge something without prejudicial sentiment connected with a particular aesthetic allowed me to survive [and] actually allowed me to open up the repertoire of Ensemble intercontemporain far more than it had been opened up before.

In one’s own writing, there’s an aspect of saying, “What is it that I want to do? What are the things that I like?” I remember a composer saying to me once, “I like my music the most.” Of course, I like so much music that that seemed to me both obvious and yet at the same time wonderfully egoistic. I have never felt that my music was good enough that I could say, “I like my music the most.” So the piano concerto was a challenge. I had to say, “What do I really like? What do I really want to do? What do I think is interesting and what gives me joy?”

[Sometimes] you feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel until you get the thing right. At other times it seems to fall right into place. That whole experience has been such a help when I’m working with composers, because it’s as though I know what it is they’re dealing with. I know what it is to write something down and feel that you have glimpsed this fantastic butterfly.  

Your main career is as a conductor. I’ve talked to several conductors who say that if they go to guest-conduct a new orchestra that they haven’t worked with before, the orchestra decides within a minute whether they like you or not. Do you feel the same way?

Usually within the first ten seconds of you walking to the podium, they get a sense of what it’s going to be. I tell my conducting students at Juilliard this all the time. We’re communicating whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s like John Cage said: “Music is continuous, only listening is intermittent.” Which is so true in so many aspects of human experience. 

I like to have at least one orchestra in my season that I have not worked with before. Not so much because I’m interested in Leporello’s “Catalog Aria” of orchestras, but rather because that forces me to call into question what I’m putting forward. Are these things successful ways of working with a group of people? That then requires flexibility on your part to say, “No, I need to do something different with these people.” The great joy is when you feel you’ve found the right key that unlocks things only that orchestra can do. Otherwise, why get on a plane and travel around the world just to meet a group of people you don’t know?

Any conductor who has been with an orchestra for a couple of seasons will tell you that there is a moment where you feel, “OK, I’ve understood now what these people would really like on a longer-term basis.” That’s not something you can do in a week.

"Some of my colleagues really like the idea of being the person who decides everything. I much prefer the idea where…my job is to know everything that's in the score and have a pretty good sense of why" David Robertson in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Some of my colleagues really like the idea of being the person who decides everything. Whereas I much prefer the idea where I happen to be one of the people in my domain of expertise. My job is to know everything that’s in the score and have a pretty good sense of why those things are in the score, so that if a question comes from what might seem like left field, I will not appear not to have thought about it before. That’s part of what the score study is about—not just memorizing the notes or which instrument comes in where but having that blueprint. I am certainly not the expert on the violin. What I’m looking for is when the violin section plays a particular passage, rather than me saying, “It should be like this,” I want to hear first what it is that is proposed: “This is how we conceive of this.”

Rather than becoming a franchise manager where if you work for Starbucks in Bangkok or Bangalore or Boston, that Frappuccino is going to be exactly the same, it’s much more like the project manager, where you come into a research firm and the people who are playing the double reeds are some of the finest experts in the world. That’s the thing that I look for when I’m rehearsing.

In 2018, you told the Juilliard student newspaper, the Citizen-Penguin, “It’s very easy to get discouraged and to stop” playing music. Have you had that feeling any time recently?

I haven’t personally had that feeling, but I think it comes from the feeling that there is one path. We see a barrage of things on Instagram, on medici.tv, on Facebook, or whatever the forum is. One is looking at these things that seem to indicate: This is the way things go, this is how it ought to be. If you are not fitting into that, then you immediately think, “I’m just not a success.” That’s a very incorrect way to think about sharing music with people. 

[In May 2021] we were with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Tulsa, Oklahoma performing “All Rise (Symphony No. 1)” for the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Attack on Greenwood, where just horrific things were done to the members of the community because they had a different skin pigmentation. At one point, one of the players was a little worried about the intonation of a passage and holding up the incredibly high standards that all of them have in performance. Wynton [Marsalis] told him, “This is about community.“ That was absolutely perfect.

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Would you be interested in taking a new music directorship somewhere or are you happy to be teaching and guest conducting?

When I left Sydney, I realized it was the first time I wasn’t musically responsible for a musical organization since 1991. That was December 2019. It felt like, “OK, it’s time to just take a little rest for a while.” I have a number of things where specific groups want more close association beyond just coming and guesting once a season. That’s attractive because I love the longer-term conversation. But at the moment, I’m certainly not looking for anything that is a longer-term type of commitment. My boys are 15 now, they’re 10th graders, so in a little while they’re going be feeling completely independent. Who knows?

Up until now, I didn’t plan any of this. I’ve never worked to manipulate myself to get any of the permanent engagements that I got. The Ensemble intercontemporain was a sudden surprise that Maestro Boulez very kindly set down in my lap. Lyon was a complete surprise, St. Louis was a complete surprise, Sydney was a complete surprise and the BBC Symphony Orchestra principal guest was a total surprise. For none of these did I try to jockey for position in order to get them. Who knows what will come? That’s the nature of living with the unknown in front of us, as Boulez liked to say. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.